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Seacoast Online: 'We will be there for them': Grandparents starting over with kids hope for support

Retired postal worker Terry Grant was 62 when her granddaughter, Madison, was born.

Madison is now 19 months old and in Grant's care.

This makes Grant what is now commonly known as a kinship guardian or kinship caregiver. These people are relatives, mostly grandparents, who are dusting off their parenting skills to raise children whose parents are struggling with a substance use disorder, or other trauma, or who have died. Often, these people stepping up are doing it blindly, not finding resources to help, or even knowing where to start looking.

"I live in Farmington and have a camp in Rochester," Grant said. "My son and his girlfriend were living there. I raised three boys and the camp was always available to each if they needed a place to stay. I knew right away I would take Madison.

"My son honestly wants to be a part of Madison's life, but he has to work on his own life first," she said. "In the meantime, I am in charge of her life."

Madison's brother, age 3, lives with his maternal grandmother in Maine, Grant said.

She is hoping day care centers, or playgroups might open up soon, post COVID-19 pandemic.

"I belong to several support groups, but what is really needed is a place to learn more about what resources can help us," Grant said. "When a grandparent takes over, there is no one to tell us what to do next, where to turn. There are a lot of responsibilities, and I took them on willingly, but there is no manual, no clearinghouse to point us in the right direction. That's what I'd like to see come from this, some coordination."

Hassan and Collins, both members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee, reintroduced the bipartisan Help Grandfamilies Prevent Child Abuse Act to better support kinship caregivers. 

“The substance use disorder crisis has devastated families across our state – and oftentimes it is grandparents who step up to fill the void left by a parent’s absence,” Hassan said. “This bipartisan legislation takes important steps to get grandparents the supports that they need while raising their grandchildren.” 

“As the opioid epidemic continues to devastate families across Maine, grandparents increasingly are being called on to become the primary caregivers of their grandchildren," Collins said. "Although this caretaker role can be a source of tremendous comfort and stability for families, it also presents several challenges. This bipartisan bill would provide grandparents access to important resources they need to help their grandchildren succeed.”

Grandparents thrown into a new life

Robin Witham lives in Rochester, where she is raising her grandson, Jack, 12. She is part of a Relative Caregiver Recharge group along with Grant.

'When I took him, he was 10 and living out in the woods, in a camper," she said, describing an unhealthy environment to raise a child. "They were in Maine and state people called and said come get him, or he will go into foster care. I jumped in the car."

With the best intentions, Witham said, she had to jump through hoops to become foster eligible, so she could keep Jack in her home. She said the child's mother is battling personal issues, and she doesn't know her son's whereabouts.

Witham said there was no question she was going to get Jack.

"I didn't have a lot of money," said Witham. "I had to do things like put fire extinguishers in all the rooms and I couldn't afford it. The grandparents group I found helped me do that and other things to make it so Jack could stay. I signed up for parenting groups. It has been a while and I wanted to do it right. ... He was scared of the dark and had so many issues."

Today, Jack is doing well in school and plays saxophone in the band, she said. Witham has applied to get him into a summer camp. He has a bike that was gifted to him, and he loves it.

"I am teaching him to cook," she said. "I joined the PTA. He is my world now, but if there is help, resources for us, I am not too proud to use them, so yay for the senators."

How legislation could help grandfamilies

According to Hassan and Collins, the Help Grandfamilies Prevent Child Abuse Act would ensure grandfamilies and all kinship families are eligible for services under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). It would also provide additional support to these families to meet the unique needs of children who have experienced trauma, including being exposed to substance misuse, call for specialized training to help kinship caregivers navigate the complicated supports and services they are eligible to receive, and coordinate with the National Technical Assistance Center on Grandfamilies and Kinship Families. The center was created in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to disseminate information on best practices used to support children being raised in kinship families within, or outside, the child welfare system

Companion legislation was also introduced in the House by Representatives Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pennsylvania) and Glenn Thompson (R-Pennsylvania).

"I want to help and if this funding can reach more families, I am all for it," said Witham. "This is so important, to give kids in similar circumstances a real chance at life."

"No one's child sets out to become addicted," said Grant. "This is a disease and they can't get sober by themselves. While they hopefully do that, these innocent children are paying the price. So, we will be there for them."